For the past quarter-century, Americans have been bashing government–not just this or that administration or political party or elected official, but the enterprise of governing.
Want a laugh? Say “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Want to indulge a conspiracy theory? The government’s giving the Alamo to the UN! Obama plans to impose Sharia law!.. Got a grudge against your state lawmakers? Push for your area’s counties to secede. Hate the feds? Put on a tricorn hat, misspell a placard and hold a rally.
The problem is, there are consequences to this constant and indiscriminate hostility to government authority, and those consequences aren’t pretty.
Example: Yesterday, to its credit and my surprise, The Indianapolis Star ran two actual news stories: one about legislative conflicts of interest and corrupt behavior, and another about inadequate regulation of child care providers. Stories about the inept rollout of the Affordable Care Act, and other tales of poor management, are everywhere.
Guess what? When we devalue government, we shouldn’t be surprised when government isn’t done very well. When we spend our time and energy arguing whether major elements of government infrastructure should even exist, we don’t have much time or energy left over to insure that all parts of government are operating properly–that public servants are competently performing those tasks that most reasonable people believe government should do.
I will be the first to acknowledge that we have public officials who deserve our scorn, policies that are–at best–counterproductive and need to be changed, and antiquated or corrupted structures that need to be revisited. The difference is, those are criticisms of how well our government is doing–not attacks on the legitimacy of government itself.
Are some regulations unnecessary? Undoubtedly. But supervising people who care for defenseless infants and children certainly seems an appropriate function of government. Most Americans would also agree that we need laws sanctioning officials who abuse their positions for personal gain.
Americans’ attitudes toward government are a lot like their attitudes toward Congress: we famously despise Congress, but approve of our own Representative. We hate government, but not the programs that benefit us, or veterans, or grandma.
Much as we may not want to admit it, we live in a complex modern world where there are tasks that only government can effectively perform–from FAA supervision of air travel, to FDA oversight of food and drug safety, to regulations preventing banks from ripping off unwary customers…..on and on. When the agencies charged with these tasks fail to do their jobs properly, real people get hurt–planes crash, people get sick and die, and–as we’ve seen– economies fall into recession or worse.
We need to stop bashing government’s legitimacy, and instead turn our attention to how government is doing its job. We need to put down the ax and pick up the scalpel–to stop characterizing government as some sort of enemy, and begin focusing on making it better.
When we insist that “public service” is an oxymoron, we shouldn’t be surprised when we don’t get decent public service.